Mike Caulfield is hopeful, maybe even optimistic. And for those of us who find themselves competing against the burgeoning fake news industry, that optimism is reassuring.
“The web is both the most amazing information engine ever invented and the most amazing disinformation engine ever invented,” said Caulfield, the director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver. Such a job title might not fit on a business card, so we’ll elaborate: Caulfield is a smart guy who understands how information gets shared.
That is a fertile field these days. At a time when stories from the “Denver Guardian” manage to infiltrate Facebook feeds and the president of the United States is constantly harping about “fake news” while his supporters ignore an endless string of demonstrable lies, discerning reality from fabrication can be a full-time job.
For the record, Caulfield keeps his job separate from political polarization. Asked about Donald Trump’s insistence that any negative story is not to be believed, Caulfield said, “I’m not going to wade into those waters.”
But he does work with instructors at WSUV to help students figure out the difference between real news and fake news. “One of the things we try to build in students is that they check things they share. The idea is to teach the skills, so we try to route around the political side of things,” he said.
Such skills are needed these days, more than ever. You see, many of the stories that get shared on Facebook or Twitter are wholly fabricated. Shocking, we know.
Politically driven certitude has become the currency for purchasing influence on the internet, with an article’s reinforcement of ideology becoming more important than its accuracy. There is, indeed, an Information War that is undermining society, but it’s not the one that Trump thinks it is.
Consumers will adapt
In many ways, this is not new. It’s just that the pace and power of fake news has been turbocharged by the internet. It’s just that news outlets that have spent generations building a relationship with the public find themselves in the midst of a battle over what constitutes the truth.
That is where Caulfield’s optimism comes in. “I think it is very similar to what we’ve seen before. Technology moves faster than culture, and eventually culture adapts. We have fallen into that gap between technology and culture.”
In other words, Americans eventually will become more discriminating about how they consume news. To that end, Caulfield focuses on three strategies when considering the veracity of a story: Examine what fact-checkers have said about the source’s previous work; go upstream to the original source of the report; see what reliable outlets have said about the report and whether they have picked it up.
During last year’s election, dozens upon dozens of stories ended up on social media purporting to be from the Denver Guardian or Baltimore Gazette or some other authentic-sounding newspaper that doesn’t exist. And people who would never dream of trying to pass a $3 bill at the market went ahead and shared them. “We’ve gotten really cavalier about seeing something a source we’ve never heard of in our lives and saying, ‘That looks good; I’ll tweet that,’ ” Caulfield noted.
Kate Starbird, a professor at the University of Washington, also has spent a great deal of time studying fake news. In an interview with The Seattle Times last spring, she warned that we may be heading toward “the menace of unreality — which is that nobody believes anything anymore.”
That dystopia sounds like one step from anarchy. And it’s rather depressing.
We prefer Caulfield’s optimistic view that consumers eventually will navigate this brave new world of Facebook and Twitter streams.
“What I really want,” he said, “is a feed that gives prominence to the sources that I can build a relationship with. There’s got to be a way.”